John Sung was born in 1901 in Fujian Province, China. He grew up in a Methodist parsonage in Putian (formerly known as Hinghwa, or Xinghua) and aspired to be a preacher since young. He left for America in 1920 and earned his undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate degrees in five and a half years. He returned to China in 1927 determined to be a preacher. In 12 years of active ministry from 1928 to 1939, John Sung became an evangelist-revivalist who “shook up the church in China and Southeast Asia”.
Sung is variously remembered as the “Wesley of China” (David Bentley-Taylor 1975:132), “Billy Sunday of China” (Smith 1965:28), “the apostle of China” (Liu 1995:15), “the greatest evangelist China has ever known” (Lyall 1956:ix, xix), and “probably the greatest preacher of this [20th] century” (Schubert 1976:14). By all accounts, John Sung’s life was filled with dramatic moments, culminating in his youthful death at the age of 42.
Having obtained a PhD in chemistry from Ohio State University, John Sung was enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. However, he experienced a mental breakdown at the end of the semester and was confined for more than six months in a mental hospital in 1927. By the end of the year, he had returned home resolved to be a preacher. In order to bolster his determination, Sung famously tossed his scholarly awards in the Pacific Ocean, saving only his doctoral diploma as an honorary gift for his parents.
After a short stint as a science teacher at his alma mater, Guthrie Memorial High School in Putian, Sung became a conference evangelist of the Hinghwa (Putian) Methodist Annual Conference. His was mostly a peripatetic ministry conducting evangelism training and outreach throughout the Putian District. From 1928 to 1930, Sung’s ministry was confined to his home province, Fujian. As the Putian dialect was little understood outside of Sung’s hometown, he had to speak in English in others parts of Fujian, his home province, for example, in Xiamen and Fuzhou. Speaking in English with Chinese translation marked Sung’s earlier ministry until he picked up spoken Mandarin after 1933.
As an evangelist, John Sung rose to national fame in China after he joined the Bethel Evangelistic Band in 1931. Led by the Reverend Andrew Jih (Ji Zhiwen), the Bethel Band was the evangelistic arm of the Bethel Mission in Shanghai. Travelling with the Band from 1931 to 1933, Sung’s footsteps reached across a vast part of China, from Inner Mongolia in the north all the way to Guangxi in the south.
At the end of 1933, John Sung parted company with the Bethel Evangelistic Band. From 1934 onwards, he was on his own. He further expanded his ministry reach in and outside of China. From 1934 to 1939, John Sung covered much of China, as well as the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Sarawak (which later became part of Malaysia), Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia, and Vietnam.
At the height of his career, his preaching constantly drew thousands. He usually preached three times a day, each session lasting two to three hours. He led numerous Bible exposition retreats that lasted anywhere from 10 days to a month, each time drawing hundreds or thousands. In 1936, he preached through the whole Bible in one month, with 2,000 retreat attendees who came from all over China and Southeast Asia (Sung 1995a:212).
John Sung was so well-known in his time that he was commonly referred to simply as “Dr. Sung” by the people of his generation. Even those who were not in sympathy with Sung’s theology and ministry were nevertheless familiar with his work. This is attested in several articles and news reports in the prominent missionary magazine, The Chinese Recorder, published in China. More interestingly, this is also evidenced in a paper presented to the International Missionary Council at Tambaram, India, in 1938. In a report on the progress of evangelism in China, several names of Chinese and American evangelists were mentioned in full, or at least with their first and last names, but John Sung was presented simply as “Dr. Sung.”These examples show that Sung was a well-recognised figure even in the international scene of the Christian missionary movement.
On the other hand, John Sung also received a fair share of criticism. In fact, it was perhaps the combination of fame and notoriety that made John Sung a household name in the Christian and missionary community. His fearless attacks on sin were unmatched. Even those in leadership positions were not spared, whether they were Chinese Christians or Western missionaries. In some ways, he became an evangelical icon to the Chinese believers for his strong stance against missionary paternalism and the theological liberalism espoused by mainline Christian leaders of that time. He became a champion and the mouthpiece of theological conservatism, together with other prominent Chinese Christians such as Ni Tuosheng (Watchman Nee), Jia Yuming (Chia Yu-Ming), Wang Mingdao (Wang Ming-Tao), and Wang Zai (Leland Wang).
John Sung was a person who provoked strong emotions in those who encountered him. He was greatly respected and loved by many, yet loathed by others. His preaching touched many and had a deciding influence in their Christian commitment. Although his trips to countries he visited were mostly brief, the impact of his ministry nevertheless was disproportionally great. John Sung died on August 18, 1944 outside Beijing at the age of 42. He was survived by his wife and three daughters.
- ^ Generally, Sung’s reporting of numbers on attendees and conversions in his diary (Song 1993; 2006) and memoir (Sung 1967)is reliable, supported by third-party reporting in periodicals and missionary publications. Sung dutifully entered these into his diary each night. Sung did admit that he had made exaggerations on a few occasions in his preaching.
- ^ Even the names of famous evangelists such as E. Stanley Jones and Sherwood Eddy were mentioned in full in the same paper. Other Chinese names included Wang Ming Tao (Wang Mingdao), Wang Pi Te, Marcus Cheng, et al. See Davis and Grubb 1939:161-163.
Liu, Yih Ling. Song Shangjie Zhuan 宋尚节传 [Life of John Sung]. Rev. Hong Kong: Christian
Communications Ltd, 1995.